Every region in America has its own take on the all-you-can-eat food fest. New England has the clambake, Texas, the barbecue, Louisiana, the crawfish boil, and northern New Jersey, the beefsteak.
Almost unheard of today outside of Bergen and Passaic counties, the beefsteak dinner got its gluttonous start in late 19th -century New York City. According to Joseph Mitchell, who chronicled the beefsteak in his April 15, 1939, article in The New Yorker, “All You Can Hold for Five Bucks,” “some old chefs believe it had its origin 60 or 70 years ago, when butchers from slaughterhouses on the East River would sneak choice loin cuts into the kitchens of nearby saloons, grill them over charcoal and feast on them during their Saturday night sprees.”
The beefsteak dinner was appropriated by New York politicians, who hosted them for fund-raisers and testimonial occasions. These were rustic affairs; there were no cutlery and no napkins – participants wore bib aprons on which they wiped their hands. Prior to Prohibition, large restaurants and hotels opened “beefsteak dungeons,” basement banquet rooms furnished with wooden crates instead of tables, where men-only clubs could convene to eat in nearly Neanderthal style.
In the May 30, 1950, New York Herald Tribune, noted food writer Clementine Paddleford described beefsteaks as “gang affairs where men eat with their fingers and drink beer out of cans.” She detailed the “beefsteak, a political shindig,” given by the John De Salvio Association 2d Assembly District Inc. at Webster Hall on the Lower East Side. The massive meal included 3,000 pounds of steak, 1,500 pounds of lamb chops, 425 pounds of hamburger and 1,300 pounds of kidneys wrapped with bacon.
The demise of the Manhattan beefsteak is attributed to several factors: the end of Tammany Hall politics, the inclusion of women at business and political dinners and the decline in the number of fraternal organizations. But across the Hudson, the tradition is still going strong.
The New Jersey beefsteak, however, has no political pedigree. According to The New York Times, in 1938 a Clifton butcher named Hap Nightingale created the formula that is still followed today at firehouses and Knights of Columbus halls in Bergen: sliced beef tenderloin, drenched in melted butter, served on bread and accompanied by French-fried potatoes.
The Ridgewood Fire Department Association will host its annual beefsteak and awards dinner on Jan. 5. Event organizer Capt. Rich Scalione, a 33-year volunteer with the department, says this is purely a social evening, where current and retired firefighters will chow down along with local officials. “It’s an all-you-can-eat, come-as-you-are cholesterol special,” says Scalione’s friend and colleague Mike Adams, the Office of Emergency Management coordinator for Ramsey.
Nightingale’s will cater the dinner in time-honored, no-frills fashion, passing tray after tray of sliced beef on Italian bread and French fries. No one eats the bread; each table piles up the slices to compete for the highest stack. A simple salad and ice cream cup round out the meal, along with, of course, beer (and soda).
Joe Cerniglia, chef-owner of Campania in Fair Lawn, knows something about beefsteaks. A former executive chef and later corporate chef for the New York-based Gallagher’s Steakhouse chain, Cerniglia is an avowed carnivore who doesn’t allow his current restaurant’s Italian focus to get in the way of his beef consumption. At Gallagher’s, he regularly cooked for the New York Giants players and coaches, who have made the West 52nd Street steakhouse their culinary home for decades.
As a run-up to the Super Bowl, Cerniglia invited a group of guys to experience an “old-fashioned” beefsteak at Campania. White-tablecloth-covered tables were pushed aside to make room for a long wood “groaning board” around which the men, who were each given a white bib apron, assembled for the stand-up feast. Not content with the New Jersey-style basics, Cerniglia first offered roasted Blue Point oysters with pancetta and lemon-chervil butter and his signature warm spiced nuts. Then came pastry chef Jessica Marotta’s extraordinary ciabatta bread and focaccia with herbed olive oil. “But we’re not supposed to eat the bread,” said guest Ron Squillace with a satisfied smile as he dunked another hunk into the oil.
For the sliced steak, Cerniglia does not use the traditional tenderloin, choosing instead an unusual cut called the “culotte,” a triangular piece of the top butt that Gallagher’s uses for its sliced steak. The beef comes from Cerniglia’s friend Lou Posess, proprietor of Bert Posess Meats, a Wyckoff resident who is also a guest at the beefsteak.
“It’s tender, it chars wonderfully, it’s well-marbled, and for sliced steaks there’s nothing better,” said Cerniglia.
The men agreed heartily as they dug into platters piled high with steak slices drizzled with melted butter. Cerniglia also replicated Gallagher’s potatoes – thick wedges roasted, with the skin on, until golden brown. To wash it all down, there was Brooklyn Pilsner, recommended by the Wine Seller in Ridgewood as an ideal beer to match the flavorful beef.
At evening’s end, several of the men suggested that Cerniglia should offer beefsteaks as regular events, reviving the New York tradition. The carnivorous chef is intrigued by the idea.
“I love cooking Italian food,” he said. “But give me a great steak and I’m a happy man.”